The video game industry is constantly changing, just as music, film, and other arts evolve with every new artist that touches them. Today there are thousands working in the gaming industry, but how do independent developers get their foot in the door? And more importantly, how do they find the financial support to develop and publish the game of their dreams?
Alex Jansen is the Founder and Creative Director of Toronto independent development studio Pop Sandbox, the team behind 2016’s indie rhythm shooter, Loud on Planet XLoud on Planet X. The game, which pits mostly Canadian rock stars against alien blobs rushing to overtake the stage and ruin their show, is hardly something today’s AAA studios would be lining up to fund.
And yet, the game delivered, garnering praised from critics and players alike. Over the summer I spoke with Jansen over coffee for The Varsity, where he explained the steps to funding his indie game, and the past, present, and future of Loud on Planet X.
Walk me through the inception of LOUD on Planet X. I don’t know where “Aliens + indie music” comes from, but I’d love to find out.
It’s kind of ridiculous. well most of what we’ve done if you actually look at stuff like KENK and The Next Day, we did a video game called Pipe Trouble, all social issues documentaries, pretty heavy issues and non-fiction. And yet for me I’ve always been into comics, film, video games, but I found how I would relax is by playing old classic games.I’d basically play Ms Pac-Man with the music turned down and I’d listen to my music to chill out, or recommendations I’d had from friends and that was just my way of relaxing. And then I thought, ‘wow wouldn’t it be great if the game responded to the music?’ and i was also a big plants v zombies fan, and that’s where the first big idea came from.
And how did the artists come into play?
So Mike and Jonah from Fucked Up did original music on our first game, Pipe Trouble, and so when we were looking at bands when we started, we reached out in the local scene. So we reached out to Fucked Up first and they were the first artists to come on board.
Yeah! And we started just kind of organically finding different artists we were excited about. We then found Cadence Weapon was a big video game fan so I think he was like number 3 to come on…3 or 4. July Talk again within the Toronto scene, so we had this kind of small roster there, and then in the midst of all that we were able to access some funding.
As we accessed funding a couple things happened: I played a fun charity soccer game with Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene who’s one of the nicest guys in the world, and told him about the project and the idea and he’s like “let me see if i can help you out,” he’s like “Oh I’ll write you a couple of intros” and next thing we know he puts us in touch with Metz and then Metric and I’m like “this is crazy!”
So then we’re in this spot where we’re at 8 artists, and we were able to get Tegan & Sara, and Lights involved – and Lights is a HUGE gamer, she’s got like three WoW tattoos. Even we would do these interviews with the different artists so while we’re filming, Jason who shot all the camera, him and Lights got into this whole little battle over who’s the best racer to use in Mario Kart, which was super fun. so she’s right into it. – so we’re all looking at basically artists who were really into gaming.
“We’re all looking at basically artists
who were really into gaming.”
So at that point we’re looking at 8 artists, the game had picked up momentum, it had gone from 4 artists and mobile only to where at that point we were looking at 8 artists… Then we had a budget shortfall and what we ended up doing was a kickstarter last spring and then that’s where we ended up through the kickstarter being able to officially add PS4 and Steam.
Which is huge…I played it on PS4 and you guys got trophy support! That’s a pretty big deal for PlayStation fans.
[With kickstarter] we ended up having the budget to add another four artists and that’s where for the last slot we went international. So going back to the very start when we were approaching artists and labels within the community, one of the labels we talked to was Warner. and our Warner rap actually loved the idea, she left Warner and joined the company. And it was her relationship that got us Tegan & Sara and was really involved in the curation when we went international. Health had done all kinds of music on Max Payne so there was a total fit in there…Chvrches it’s just crazy timing that we got them when we did because they’re blowing up.
And they just put out the title track for Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, right?
Yeah! It’s amazing. and they’re blowing up huge and super fun. and Little Dragon and Purity ring were our last slots. in the end we finished with 14 bands. the whole thing kind of ballooned as we went. It’s been great.
With the kickstarter, you managed to have the game out less than a year after the launch. was that really important for your team? Because these days crowd funding a gaming project in under a year is not easy to do.
well we were in a unique spot in that we were already about a year into things at that point. We already had the budget to do the game as a mobile game with four bands, we already had an alpha build. So what we were able to do with the kickstarter was – and we were pretty straight on it – we were like “we’re going to get the game made,” – which i think is important for people on kickstarter because so many people have been burnt supporting projects that never get made. So in this case we said, ‘yeah the game is going to get made, but with your support we’re going to go bigger: more bands, more platforms.” so because we had a mind before the expansion, it made it easier. Originally we hoped to launch the kickstarter in Spring and release in fall, but it all takes time. But I was really happy we were able to turn it within the year because you can lose momentum. We were really lucky that the artists helped push it.
“So many people have been burnt supporting
projects that never get made.”
Was there any trepidation in launching a music game in 2016? Because that genre has seen two crashes now. In 2010 the whole Rock Band / Guitar Hero thing phased out, and they tried to come back last fall and it didn’t really sell. Was that ever something that crossed your mind?
Well it was interesting because I wasn’t sure how everything was going to go into gear. We did our Kickstarter in the spring. I knew Rock Band and Guitar Hero would be having their next iterations by end of year, but had no idea how’d they go. And at that point we actually thought we’d have [LOUD on Planet X] out by the fall before them so we had no idea how things would sit there.
But I think there has continued to be really interesting stuff in the music / rhythm genre, just more so within the indie scene. So I think we’re totally something different to them. And you look at like, you know, others there’s been Crypt of the Necromancer and there’s been some really cool music based stuff,
“There has continued to be really interesting
stuff in the music / rhythm genre, just more
so within the indie scene.”
Amplitudes and Rhythm Heavens and stuff like that.
Yeah, yeah. and the new Rhythm Heaven is coming out. And this is a bit earlier but one of the ones we really loved was Patapon. Our leader developer was part of the team on Sound Shapes so there has continued to be some really cool stuff happening on the indie scale, just not on the broad scale. But again, it’s only as we got bigger that we actually had a larger profile, it was more just about making the game that we were really excited about playing.
Another thing that I think is cool is that every time I talk to bands the same thing pops up, which is that there’s such a great entanglement between the communities of gamers and musicians. I talked to PUP a few weeks ago and the first time some of them played together was covering Mega Man songs.
Oh man, that’s crazy! It’s pretty nuts. I think we’re in a really interesting spot. Toronto I think has got one of the most incredible indie music scenes and one of the most incredible indie gaming scenes like in terms of the stuff being created here – it’s incredible. And then I think on both sides you’ve got two communities that are incredibly open and supportive too, and really interested in collaboration.
I think what kind of exemplifies that to me is the stuff that Fucked Up has done with Long Winter. we actually launched Pipe Trouble out of Long Winter originally where we did like retro arcade cabinets and we launched it there and Mike and Jonah had done the score on it. I just think like people are really open and excited and interested in collaboration.
Especially you know with some of the stuff like Tony Hawk and you look back to…well on my side this was even earlier but I remember the first time music really captured me was Final Fantasy 2 and 3 where it took a fairly simple 8 bit world and completely expanded it and made it so much richer.
“As a kid…you had to choose one to hone in on, but now I don’t think you do.”
It’s really neat because all of the silos are breaking down. With POP Sandbox, or for me personally I started as a film producer. Produced a feature years ago that got into the Toronto film fest, and was really disappointed with the distribution of it so i got into distribution with Mongrel Media where i got to learn through building the home entertainment division. And then the idea was like, I’d done the producing, I’d learned the distribution marketing piece, so now the idea was to take that to my own projects. but in starting the new company i wasn’t tied to film as a medium. I always loved comics, film, video games, music as a kid but you had to choose one to hone in on, but now I don’t think you do.
You have these creative talents that are interested in breaking out of just their silo, and then you also have funding models that are supporting that, and then you have this community in Toronto where you just have two of the most incredible communities that are also super collaborative, it’s this perfect storm for coming up with some really interesting things.
Is these genre hybrids part of the artistic vision of POP Sandbox?
It’s interesting, I don’t know if it makes sense as a business model but it makes sense as like being able to do what I’m excited about doing. The whole idea with POP Sandbox was the ‘sandbox,’ being a creative environment where you can take people from different disciplines and churn out different projects but not being tied to any one medium. And then you’re tackling new ways of engaging audiences. So in the case of Pipe Trouble, like a social issue rooted satire video game exploring ongoing issues with exploitation of natural gas, what you end up doing is engaging an audience that’s not otherwise engaged in these issues, speaking directly to the 18-35 year old audience – the audience with the worst voter turnout in Canada – directly with a medium they’re engaged with.
Personally a real interest in experimentation with form, and then being really excited about bringing together these different practitioners from different industries.
You guys have almost been touring with the game, which I love. Bringing it to TCAF and NXNE, what’s next in the pipeline for LOUD?
Depending on how things go, we’re considering the possibility, we’re on the fence right now of doing an expansion which would be to add Xbox One and then add a new kind of expansion of like three artists into it. And that would ideally be a Fall or by end of year proposition. So we’ll see what happens, but it’s been fun.
Speaking of the expansion, were there any bands that you had heard post launch or since production began where you were like, “I wish we could have squeezed them in”?
Well right now you’re telling me about PUP with the Megaman covers I’m like, man, why the hell didn’t we talk to PUP?
Throw in PUP, get some DVP going on!
Yeah! Well it’s been interesting actually, when we did the Kickstarter then we started hearing from a few people once it cracked through we started hearing from more artists and at that point we thought “shit,” we’re pretty tight on budget. So we’d love to expand out. If we could do one more pack it would be great. And in general, the goal would be to do kind of what we’ve been doing so far in general, equal parts with a headliner, and established artist, and an emerging artist. So the hope is that with the game, someone might pick it up because they know Tegan and Sara but then they discover Metz, you know? And that’s the hope. So that’s where if we were to do an expansion, in the perfect world we’d love to time it for CMJ, the College Music Journal in New York, and that’s the huge college radio showcase.
But right now its just totally happy with where it’s at. Every so often you have to pinch yourself it’s like wow in the process of making this game the artists that I love get to collaborate, and then having the chance to press a 7 inch vinyl is something you never think you’d get to do.
Editors Note: This transcribed interviewed has been edited for clarity and length
By Corey van den Hoogenband